Chief of SA Army in Russia for a ‘goodwill visit’ while country handles US-Lady R fallout

Picture of Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha wearing a khaki army uniform. He is standing in front of a microphone while addressing a crowd inside a hall at an SANDF event.

In a statement, the SANDF said Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha was in Moscow for a bilateral meeting between the two military establishments. Picture: SANDF/Facebook

Published May 16, 2023

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Cape Town - On the back of unverified claims from the US ambassador that South Africa had sold arms to the Russians, it has now emerged that the Chief of the South African Army is in that country on a “goodwill” visit.

The news of Lieutenant-General Lawrence Mbatha arriving in Moscow came on the same day that President Cyril Ramaphosa affirmed that the country’s non-aligned position regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict did not favour Russia.

This followed allegations last week by the US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety, that weapons were loaded on to the Russian ship Lady R at the Simon’s Town Naval Base in December last year.

When he made the allegations, Brigety said the deviation from South Africa’s policy of non-alignment, particularly this instance and its naval exercises between Russia, China and South Africa, was inexplicable.

Brigety later apologised and sought to “correct any misimpressions” left by his public remarks. He “re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries” during a meeting with International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday.

In a statement, the SANDF said Mbatha was in Moscow for a bilateral meeting between the two military establishments – which was planned well in advance – after he had received an invitation from his Russian counterpart, Oleg Salyukov, for a “goodwill visit” .

The visit included a call to the higher combined Army Academy and the Artillery Military Academy.

“During this visit, the chief will also have staff talks with military officials. It must be noted that South Africa has military-to-military bilateral relations with various countries in the continent and beyond,” the SANDF said.

On Monday, President Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter: “We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Fikile Marakalla/GCIS

He added there had been “extraordinary pressure” on the country to abandon its non-aligned position and take sides in, what is in effect, a contest between Russia and the West.

“As a country, we are committed to the articles of the UN Charter, including the principle that all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means.

“We support the principle that members should refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of other states,” Ramaphosa said.

In August, South Africa will host the leaders of Brazil, India, China and Russia for the BRICS summit, and Ramaphosa reiterated that South Africa had “strong and enduring relations” with all these countries.

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Russia-Africa ties in the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), said the incident with the US ambassador put South Africa’s non-aligned stance regarding the Russia/Ukraine conflict under strain, and it may have been a calculated move to elicit a response from South Africa.

Amid the scramble by South African diplomats to take control and the damaging consequences of Brigety’s allegations, Ramaphosa resolved that since no concrete evidence was provided to support the allegation, an independent inquiry headed by a retired judge was being instituted to establish the facts.

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Cape Argus